[iDC] Play and Counterpower

Julian Kucklich julian at kuecklich.de
Sun Jun 21 06:27:55 UTC 2009

Hi all,

I've fallen behind a little bit with this discussion (if we want to  
talk about attention economies we should also talk about those on the  
list who have reservoirs of attention that allow them to post  
frequently vs those who hardly get to scan the flood of emails  
generated by this list), but since I am not particularly interested in  
socialism (remember dot.communism? The song remains the same), Sal's  
email provides a convenient point of re-entry.

While I do not agree with Sutton-smith's noble savage idea that "third  
world people" never had a notion of winning before colonialists  
introduced it to them I must admit that it fills my heart with glee  
that Britain regularly gets the crap beaten out of it in cricket by  
its former colonies.

At the same time it is evident that this is a phantasmatic empowerment  
which ultimately only serves to uphold existing power relationships,  
so if this is a form of counter-power it has been co-opted and turned  
back into a form of government.

For the past two days I attended a workshop on governmentality and  
games of strategy, and what I have taken away from it is the notion  
that we need to extend the notion of strategic play beyond the realm  
of games, and examine forms of strategic concatenations in other areas  
of digital life.

Without a doubt, the imperative to think strategically is one of the  
many ways in which biopower asserts itself, but it seems to me that  
the governmental form of address used in these exhortations to plan  
ahead is the second person singular rather than the plural. It is in  
this space between singularity and plurality then that we can situate  
something like strategic intersubjectivity.

Maybe one of the modes of this intersubjectivity is "playing dirty" —  
something which clearly taps into the murkier aspects of play and  
evokes images of after-school brawls in which the contestants bite,  
spit and scratch, or throw sand in each other's faces.

This is certainly very far from schiller's elitist notion of play, and  
it might seem that it takes place in the sphere of the tactical rather  
than the strategic. But I'd like to suggest that the distinction  
between the tactical and the strategic is yet another false opposition  
and that elements of the strategic can be found in the tactical and  
that this is the space where we have to look for modes and modalities  
of refusal to the ideology of play and the co-optation of playbour.

As Sal points out, "good" and "bad" play are hard to tell apart from  
the position of an external observer, and it becomes even murkier when  
we move into a space that is neither inside or outside the nexus of  
play, labour and resistance (rather than using the concept of  
temporary autonomous zones, I prefer to deploy the figure of the seki  
in go/weiqi, which introduces a state of exception in the ruled space  
of play).

I am sympathetic to Sal's argument about throwing shoes in the  
machine, but, for better or for worse, the factory worker is no longer  
the dominant model of the subject of government. Instead we are  
increasingly addressed as users and encouraged to play with the tools  
as well as the process and products of labour in order to become more  
creative or innovative. This is precisely the way in which the  
ideology of play interpellates us as playful subjects.

Yes, play cannot be coerced, and it doesn't need to because it is in  
itself so compelling. This is what happens in the transition from  
coercive disciplinary societies to societies of control, in which the  
means if control are internalized to such a degree that they become  
indistinguishable from the machinations of subjectivity.

Playing dirty thus involves strategies of de- and  
intersubjectification, refusals to play by the rules. Clearly, deludic  
tactics such as cheating are easily co-opted as long as they are  
embedded in the paradigm of efficiency that suffuses networked forms  
of life and play. But it is just as clear that there is ultimately no  
way of winning this game (albeit in an impoverished material sense)  
and that there is no meaningful way to opt out.

I like the phrase "play is the unmaking of all Utopias" and if we take  
it seriously, and understand utopia as the non-place, the place  
outside of control, we must rid ourselves of utopian notions, and  
rather look to the seki, the re-entry, the oscillation between states.  
But this can only be achieved by building intersubjective strategic  
concatenations, and while playing dirty might not be the only way of  
doing this, it seems to me one of the more interesting options at our  


Dr Julian R. Kücklich, MA

On 20 Jun 2009, at 22:40, Sal Randolph <salrandolph at gmail.com> wrote:

> Greetings IDC friends,
> In the breath between act I and act II, I'd like to take up the thread
> on play, labor, and playbour that's been batted around here,
> especially by Brian, Pat, and Julian. Just catching up and keeping up
> with this whole discussion has been quite a playbour.
> So...
> While we're invoking Sutton-Smith, here's another bit of his regarding
> some of the political consequences of play.
> "The selling of sports...although it often resulted in the direct
> ludic identity of the imperial sports teams, also led the colonials or
> Third World people to adopt the rhetoric of game superiority (called
> winning) that went with playing those sports; in the long run they
> sometimes successfully contested their overlords for that same glory.
> It is another paradox that the British imperial powers should use
> contestive games to sell their own rhetoric identity of moral
> gentlemanliness when they were also, less wittingly, selling the game
> notion of legitimate opposition."
> He goes on:
> "Perhaps it can be said that whenever one is taught and beaten at
> games by another group—whoever they are, masters, aliens, foreigner 
> s,
> adults, gangs, or the opposite sex—one’s own group frequently  
> develops
> a desire to contest that superiority on the same playing field. This
> opposition is a public transcript widely shared by the world’s
> underdogs, and indeed it is a breach in the hegemony of the dominant
> groups, even though the playing of the same games is itself consistent
> with such hegemony (Scott, 1990). Many authors have seen the selling
> of sports as a facet of the extension of imperial hegemony or the
> capitalist way of life, work, and consumption. The problem is that the
> same imperial way of life in some places permitted different social
> classes or ethnic groups to compete for hegemony at least within the
> ludic sphere. And such participation is at the very least a form of
> enactive subjunctivity, with all its implied optimism and fantasies
> about the possibility of success."   (also from The Ambiguity of Play)
> Here play is seen to have consequences other than those intended and
> also to be a kind of reservoir of counterpower.  Although the kind of
> example he gives is specific and limited (the story he tells in this
> section is primarily about cricket and rugby in the British colonies),
> it's my feeling that both these qualities are always inherent or
> latent in the very notion of play.
> In the conversation we've had so far about play we've seen allusions
> to a good play, or a play we like, which is subversive and a bad play,
> a play we're suspicious of, which is selfish and distracting and
> easily co-opted or exploited.
> One thing that strikes me is that from the outside it's very difficult
> to tell the two apart (and this may be one of the things that gives
> play some political potency --  they way play resists surveillance of
> its *meaning* in particular).  People suffer from internal regimes
> that are opressive and repressive as well as external ones.  Think of
> Deleuze and the Society of Control here.  Or the subtle systems that
> make forms of self-control both voluntary and desirable which Brian
> ties back to Schiller's aesthetic state.
> But as compelling as Brian's case is, for the idea of free play as
> just another regime, I'm going to argue the opposite.  What if, for
> instance, Schiller was actually just wrong about play.  What if there
> is something about play that opposes regulation, both internal and
> external?  Something that tends (not all the time of course) to throw
> a shoe in the works of the machine?
> Play, for instance, is all about unknown outcomes - if it can be
> completely predicted, it's not play.  There's a reason factory workers
> aren't encouraged to play with what they are making (though a little
> joking might be allowed) - in the fordist factory every part and every
> action must be known in advance.  In this kind of environment any kind
> of play equals sabotage.
> Play can't be coerced (again, it becomes not-play), a quality that
> even by itself is pretty interesting.  It means that as long as play
> exists there's a sphere of the uncoerced. Personally, this is one of
> the aspects of play that makes it so compelling, worth defending time
> and space for in my daily life.
> Playing with tools changes their use, sometimes very simply as when
> you use a shoe as a hammer. But even a simple transformation like
> that  implies a rethinking of the structures of expectation and social
> meaning -- from there it's a short leap to more profound
> reappropriations.
> Pat mentions play's darker side (peeking into the Marquis de Sade's
> bedroom), its essential amorality. But it strikes me that play
> wouldn't be interesting (wouldn't make anything happen) without that
> darker side. It's the amorality that allows for the return of the
> repressed, the thinking of the unthinkable, a reserve of opposition or
> counterpower in every situation.  Meaning that this aspect of play is
> genuinely something to be scared of, but also that it's what might
> allow us to play our way out of systems of control.  Especially
> internal systems of control.
> So on the one hand you have the Schillerian idea brought up by Brian
> that play and aesthetic play help further regulate people and
> society.  But on the other you have the idea that play, precisely
> because of its elements of amorality and unpredictability always
> contains the seeds of an opposition to whatever the dominant systems
> are. From this point of view play isn't utopian; play is in fact what
> unmakes all utopias.
> I haven't really gotten to playbour yet, but I'm going to stop and
> post this before I fall too far behind the conversation.
> -- Sal
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